“God’s faithful people and the Church’s mission continue to suffer greatly as a result of abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse, and the poor way that they were handled, as well as the pain of seeing an episcopate lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation. This situation forces us to look to what is essential and to rid ourselves of all that stands in the way of a clear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ… Credibility is born of trust, and trust is born of sincere, daily, humble and generous service to all, but especially to those dearest to the Lord’s heart.” A statement from The Letter of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the Bishops of the United States of America, 1/1/2019.
Pope Francis recognizes the great pain of abuse and the responsibility facing the U.S. bishops. During their retreat in early January, he called each of them to reflect on what “stands in the way” of their ability to be a witness to the Gospel. He also recognized the loss of trust and credibility and warned them that addressing this issue requires more than policy changes, it requires a “metanoia,” a change of heart.
In 2002, many effective diocesan policy changes were made, such as the requirement to report allegations directly to law enforcement, to convene lay review boards, to require background investigations and training for those working with vulnerable populations and to have annual audits for accountability. But the bishops have been charged with reflecting and deciding on what more should they have done and therefore, need to do, to ensure proper levels of responsibility, accountability and transparency for all ministers, lay and clerics, especially themselves.
In reality, since 2002, there have been voices that have been critical that the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People did not go far enough to ensure accountability and transparency and to change the culture that contributed to the abuse crisis. This summer’s public revelations proved many of those voices were correct. There was an expectation that the implementation of the charter would address the evil of sexual abuse by any minister, past and present, which it did in many ways. But with most immediate changes in policy and practice, there is the ongoing process of full understanding, awareness development and willingness for necessary cultural change.
As the bishops have been charged by Pope Francis with refocusing their efforts, Catholics have also been questioning and reflecting about what other changes need to be made from Catholics across the country. Many question if there is a need for improvement of the formation and evaluation of candidates. Others ask for a greater lay involvement or authority.
Some have even questioned whether priests should be allowed to marry, and some have called for women to be ordained. Studies, however, show that there can be many factors that lead to sexual misconduct towards minors or vulnerable adults as well as sexual harassment, within an institution. Focusing only on what one may believe to be “the” cause, or what one may consider “the” influential factor to this complex problem, either historically or currently leads us to ignore the common denominators found when someone perpetrates this type of a betrayal of trust.
The John Jay College Research Team presented a report in 2011 to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops titled, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.” Dr. Thomas G. Plante referred to this report in a Psychology Today article dated from May 18, 2011, as “the most comprehensive study on child sexual abuse of any major organization ever conducted.” According to the report it “sought to understand why the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests occurred as it did, by integrating research from sociocultural, psychological, situational and organizational perspectives.” Of the area’s most often charged as causes, notably celibacy and sexual orientation, the report determined that these cannot be blamed. This report listed a number of factors and situations, not just one, that contributed to the sexual abuse of minors. To view the full report, go to USCCB.org.
Renewed focus has been placed on an abuse of power and clericalism as contributing factors. In the Aug. 20 “Letter from Pope Francis to The People of God,” he refers to a culture of clericalism that needs to change. In this letter, which can be found at ArchdioceseofAnchorage.org, Pope Francis defines clericalism as an “approach that not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people.”
“The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse,” which investigated institutions throughout Australia, linked clericalism “to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion…” Pope Francis states, “to say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”
We, the members of the Body of Christ, laity and clergy alike, can say “no” to an abuse of power by supporting the message of proper accountability, responsibility and transparency. We can support the dignity of all members of the Body of Christ, no matter their age, ability, education, sex, vocation and ministry. Pope Francis is calling the bishops to conversion. As a community of faith, the bishops need all of us to assist them in a collaborative way, to reject a culture of elitism, protectionism, and any unrealistic expectations and unhealthy attitudes held of ministers. Cardinal Beniamino Stella, The Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy in his address in September 2018 stated, “Together, priests and laity, as the one people of God — each one according to the specificity of their vocation — we are invited to walk and work in the service of the Kingdom of God, supporting one another and sharing with tender love the joys, difficulties and sufferings.”
The writer is director of the Anchorage Archdiocese’s Office of Safe Environment.